Sunday, February 24, 2008

Personally debunking hypnotism

I've always wondered about hypnotism, but had never seen it in action before. Last week, I learned unequivocally that it's a bunch of hooey.

While out of town on business, some co-workers and I attended a function at which a professional hypnotist had been hired to perform. Ever wonder how a hypnotist gets people to act like they're hypnotized? Easy--by only inviting people on stage who think they're susceptible to it. "Close your eyes," the guy commanded us, "and clasp your hands together. Tighter...tighter...You cannot pry them apart." Those who believed they could not unclasp their hands were told to stand up and their hands would come free. When a dozen people stood up, the hypnotist said, "Everyone standing, come up on stage!" They thought they'd already been hypnotized from long distance; they were ready to swallow anything.

The unequivocal evidence? A woman was asked to draw something from her home with sentimental value. She drew something, tore off the sheet of paper, and folded it. The hypnotist told her to concentrate on this item . . . concentrate . . . concentrate . . . while he read her mind. Suddenly, he started drawing.

He instructed her to unfold her sketch and show the audience. "It's my dog," she said--except that it wasn't. She was a lousy artist. "It's a cat!" we all yelled up at her. It had the pointy ears and whiskers and everything. The hypnotist then showed us his own sketch -- a perfectly drawn cat. Of course, had he really read her mind, he would have seen a dog. By drawing a cat, he proved that he was just re-tracing her sketch. BUSTED!

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Of course hypnosis is all in the mind of the subject. I would have thought that that went without saying. That isn't to say that it isn't a real phenomenon. Take your dreams for example. Whilst your dreams have no physical reality, your experience of them, while you are actually dreaming, can be very real. If you have ever watched a very animated dreamer or a sleepwalker, you will also be aware that observing their reaction to their inner experiences can also be very engaging.

In a stage hypnosis situation, the performer is looking for participants who will get to the 'fun' part of the show the quickest. Nobody wants to sit and watch a 15 minute induction when they have paid for a fun night out with their mates. That's why this selection process, or something very similar is commonly used. Most people can experience hypnosis on some level, but it can take longer to achieve and generally isn't as interesting to watch as those individuals who run down to the stage believing that their hands are stuck together. Part of the reason that they believe this in the first place is that they want an excuse to be part of the show and have the coloured lights shone on them for an hour and a half.
Finally, hypnosis has nothing to do with telepathy. There are various ways to reproduce a supposedly unseen drawing. Many of these ways are quite ingenious, but none of them rely on an ability to read minds. The simple fact is that when this stuff works out for the performer, and it make for some great entertainment, and entertainment, one has to remember, is what any show (hypnotic or otherwise) is all about. You would never complain (I hope) that David Copperfield can't really fly, or that Kriss Angel couldn't really survive being run over by a steamroller. It's entertainment, and should be regarded as such.

Speaking as a hypnotist myself, I have had many remarkable experiences of hypnotic phenomena. That fact is, however, that hypnosis is not what it is widely perceived to be. The swinging watch, complete mind control, the irresistible power over another human being, and the telepathic abilities are the stuff of fiction.

The fact that hypnosis isn't what you understood it to be doesn't mean that it isn't real. Equally, the fact that something is presented for the sake of entertainment doesn't mean that it is real. The truth lies somewhere in between.

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